Circumstantial Chance, May 13, 2008, St. Paul’s Vancouver
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Ps 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and they meditate on his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.”
Delight in God’s law, the psalmist says. Meditate on God’s rules, day and night. You will not only be happy, but prosperous.
Sounds like a tough sell to me.
I’ve read the bible. I’m sure many of you have too. God’s rules and laws are not my favourite parts. When I was finished, I was happy that I didn’t have to go through them again. I certainly had no intention of spending my life meditating on the laws of God.
And this is where proper translations can really make a big difference. In my study for this week’s sermon, I learned how two little words can drastically change the way I see that first psalm.
First of all, the word we have as “prosper” when the psalmist says “everything they shall do shall prosper”, really means something like “thrive.” And “the law of the Lord” is better translated as “the teachings of the Lord.” This amounts to a major shift. No longer is it “studying God’s rules will make you wealthy,” but rather, “paying close attention to God’s teaching will bring you satisfaction in your life.”
Suddenly, this sounds like something I can do.
So, if you would like to meditate of the gospel of John day and night, you are welcome to do it. There are far worse ways to spend your time.
For those of us who are looking for simplicity—those of us who want answers, guidance, direction—the gospel of John might not be the first place to look. At least not this passage. It somehow seems…complicated, unclear.
Because there are times in our lives when we are looking for clarity. We want direction. We want help in making decisions.
And St. Paul’s is facing a number of decisions going forward. I hope it is not a surprise to most of you that the search for a new permanent rector is underway. The decisions facing St. Paul’s, however, are not as simple as just “which candidate do we choose?” The questions are larger: Why do we meet together as a church? What is our role in our community? What is our role in the church or the world at large? Whom are we attempting to impact? What is the message that we want St. Paul’s to be associated with?
Now, I’m not going to tackle all of those questions today, but I thought the question of looking for guidance would be relevant.
I led an Alpha course in the church I worked at in Montreal. If you don’t know Alpha, it’s a program designed for people who have questions about church, faith, God. In the course people learn about the Christian tradition in a way that allows for more questions.
The Alpha course has a whole module called “How does God Guide Us?” I’m not going to repeat the entire module, but there is some helpful material there. They recognize the importance of common sense, and the guidance of godly people when making decisions in your life. God gave us brains and calls us to use them. God also put us in the presence of other people, some of whom are very wise and can give us good guidance, if we will only turn to them for help.
The course also mentions the role of the spirit, saying that sometimes we can receive guidance from the Holy Spirit in the form of a strong inclination, sometimes in the form of a dream, or even in the words of prophecy from someone with that gift.
The other two ways that God guides us, according to the Alpha course, are through scripture (which we’ve discussed), and through seemingly circumstantial signs—things that just seem to work or obstacles that appear in our path. Christian-speak for this is “God is opening doors for me” or “God is closing doors for me in that direction.”
Given that list of ways that God guides us today, it’s a little surprising what we hear in our first reading, from the book of Acts. I can’t help but chuckle to myself as I hear about the great decision-making process that guided the early church: chance.
There were only eleven apostles after Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and then killed himself. Peter, as head of the apostles, declared that he must be replaced. So, they cast lots and found a replacement.
I find that kind of hilarious.
But there is something quite compelling about allowing God to speak to us through seemingly “random” occurrences. I’m not suggesting that we should make major decisions with the toss of a coin or with the shake of the dice, but what if we allowed God to guide us by something so ordinary?
Now, you’ll find out in a moment why I am biased about this particular approach. But before I get to my story, I think we need to spend another minute or two on Peter’s story in Acts.
First of all, the church in those days, besides facing persecution, was also growing by leaps and bounds. Many new believers were joining their ranks every day and people were very passionate about the gospel. In that state of things, the particular number “twelve” was probably not as significant as the eleven remaining apostles made it out to be.
We also heard from another account in the book of Acts two weeks ago of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Phillip was one of those people who had been designated a deacon, and not one of the twelve. Yet, despite his lesser designation, God called him to play this major role in the life of the church in Ethiopia at a time when the apostles were still focused on Jerusalem. The title of “Apostle” didn’t mean that others couldn’t do amazing things.
Additionally, of the one hundred and twenty people gathered there that evening, only two made the short list as potential replacements among the twelve. We don’t know much at all about either one of them—but we do know that they must have been fairly close competitors. They were both solid disciples who had been with the group from the time of Jesus’ baptism and I’m sure both had demonstrated their devotion to the cause. If only one of the two of them were to join the twelve, things probably could have gone well either way.
But, the successor was not chosen at random. At least in their eyes. God directed the outcome.
Yes, of course, casting lots is random. And if you remember the sacred Urim and Thummim in the ark of the covenant from the time of Moses and Aaron, scholars believe those too were instruments of chance.
But the Urim and Thumim and, in this case, casting lots was used to demonstrate God’s will. Does that mean that God actually reached down a divine hand and altered the outcome of the lots so that God’s will might be done? Maybe. Probably not. But the procedure leading up to that moment was done diligently. And, more importantly, the outcome was treated as God’s will—this decision was permitted to express God’s will as it unfolded.
Let me give you my story—and maybe you’ll understand my point.
Years ago, when I lived in Vancouver, I started sensing that it was time for me to leave. God was “closing doors” for me in Vancouver. Work was not going well, opportunities were not presenting themselves, I was growing increasingly frustrated. My life was not bad—I was just sensing those circumstantial signs that it was time for me to move on. The trouble was that I wasn’t sure if this was just circumstances or God. But beyond that, I didn’t know where God wanted me to go.
So, to find my way through this challenge, I did many of the other things on that list that I mentioned earlier. I sought the counsel of godly people in my life. I read the scriptures, prayerfully. I used my common sense. All of this pointed me to the notion that it really was time to leave.
So, one Sunday evening on my way to play hockey with a group of friends, I stopped by the church. I went in for the service, and in that service I prayed fervently to God. “Show me your will,” I prayed. “Give me a sign.”
After the service, I got into my car and prayed again for a sign. I wanted one of those circumstantial signs to present itself. A dream or a vision would have been great. But it didn’t happen.
Giving up, I turned on my car. There was a radio program on that I listened to every Sunday night when I remembered. It was called “the Ongoing History of New Music.” It usually featured an artist or behind-the-scenes information about major movements or events. Anyway, that evening, the show was all about the music scene in Montreal. I’d never heard this show focus on a place before. I thought for a minute that maybe this was the sign I had prayed for. Then I shook my head thinking that was ridiculous. But then I thought, if God was trying to contact me, how else might God do it?
The ending of this story is ruined for you, of course. I already mentioned that I lived in Montreal. Many of you probably know that I lived there for twelve years. You probably know that I became a priest in Montreal, met and married my wife, had a child. My life completely changed directions because I moved to Montreal.
Now, I don’t pretend to be sure that it was God who told me to pack up and move to Montreal. I still don’t know for sure if that was God’s plan, or mine, or merely circumstance. But I know that I did my best to obey and to trust God with the outcome—allowing God to speak into my life through something completely random. Because just over one month after I heard that radio show, I was on the road, having sold or given away many of my things, quit my job, and loaded up my pickup truck to drive to Montreal, a city I had never even visited where I knew no one and had no place to live and no job lined up. [Moving back to Vancouver over a decade later was not as dramatic. There was a job, an apartment, and daycare all lined up—and we used movers.]
So I want to encourage you today: when you are looking for guidance from God, remember that those who seek the Lord’s teachings will thrive. And that submitting to God’s will and allowing God to work out the details can be more powerful than trying to control the outcome. Pray, study and meditate on God’s teachings, and allow God to work in your lives, and in the life of the parish of St. Paul’s. Let the spirit lead. And allow God’s plan to unfold, however the dice land.